“Commencement” (season four, episode 22; originally aired 5/7/2003)
There are West Wing episodes about things, and then there are West Wing episodes about things. This one is the latter. There’s no, like, subtle musings about the state of humanity and the United States’ tenuous place as the world’s police. It’s just a lot of stuff happening, real stuff, back to back to back. It feels like the penultimate episode of a season of The Wire, building tension through a series of quick cuts into the middle of stories serving a larger purpose, disparate for now.
In most cases, the resolution of “Commencement” feels like an inevitability, and we’re not even allowed the privilege of enjoying it before the episode briskly moves along. Donna and Amy bond late night at the White House, when Amy asks Donna, point blank, if she’s in love with Josh. CUT AWAY. Toby buys the house Andy had her eye on for years, then proposes marriage just one more time so Andy can say no. Then the pair travel to the hospital so she can give birth to his twins. CUT AWAY. CJ and Danny spar in the briefing room, ending with Danny asking whether or not the White House feared retaliation for their actions against Qumar. CUT AWAY. And all the while, Leo runs to President Bartlet, about to inform him that his worst fear has been realized.
“Commencement” is the story of that one scene, of Leo running to the president. Not just as the Chief of Staff, but as the man’s oldest and dearest friend. Bartlet is just about to learn that his daughter is missing and one of the most bad-ass people on the security team has been killed. In that moment, Bartlet’s going to need both Leos. And in that moment, I remember that The West Wing is a show about symbols, about the elegance of loss and the overwhelming power that comes from sitting in a chair and saying, “What’s next?” It’s Seinfeld-ian in its ability to be about nothing and everything at the same time. And yet we know exactly why Leo is running. He’d never not run.
A bit of an anomaly, “Commencement” is also as plot-heavy as episodes of The West Wing get. Bartlet learns that there are five Qumari operatives that have disappeared. They were being watched by the U.S. government, and now they are gone. He takes the country to Threat Level Bravo, tells his inner circle about the Shareef incident they already sort of knew about, and vows to track down those five. Meanwhile, he’s set to deliver a commencement address at Georgetown, sending Zoey off for three months to France with Jean-Paul in the process. So he does what any dad would do: He briefs a highly trained security detail and refuses to really acknowledge the speech at all, changing it on the fly and giving Will a premature heart attack.
In fact, so much happens that the office completely ignores the fact that they are still searching for a vice president to take Hoynes’ place. We only get a glimpse in the cold open, with Josh going through the vetting files and asking Charlie what he’d think of a Bartlet/Leo ticket. For a brief second, I got excited that the accidental prediction/observation I made last week— that Leo’s more of what I imagine a VP being than Hoynes—would come true. But so we shall wait. There are more terrible surprises to come.
Some are fun, like when CJ comes into her office and discovers Danny sleeping on the couch, scaring the shit out of her. Some are worse, like when Danny reveals that he’s found the pilot of Shareef’s plane and is planning on running the story tomorrow, with or without a comment from the White House. Some are confusing, like… didn’t the two of them date once? Their interactions now are so contentious and hotheaded, I almost forget. They must have torn each other to shreds in the bedroom.
CJ and Danny are at a point where they’re struggling to retain a sense of normalcy in their working relationship. And it’s much like the confusion that monopolizes the whims and desires of the other characters. Toby’s insistence that he marry Andy is part of this vicious cycle he finds himself trapped in. He wants the textbook, white picket fence life he can never have, he’s denied that by Andy because he’s too “sad,” he gets sadder and tries again, she denies him for more of his sadness, and so on. And each step of the way, Andy gets more and more pregnant with those twins Toby wants to help raise.
That frustration is setting in, to a certain extent, with Charlie too. Three-and-a-half years ago, he was dating Zoey and burying bottles of champagne in the garden for the two of them to share on her graduation night. Today, after confessing his love for Zoey, she’s still deciding to travel to France, leaving Charlie high and dry. So, he sets out to dig up the champagne so at least he won’t be dry, and Zoey’s there, drunk from the moonlight and $15 bubbly, looking for some serious MO-ing. All Charlie wants is for love to be easy, and it hasn’t been for the last few months. Now, suddenly, it is. He gets what he wants. But he knows it’s only for a few minutes before Zoey heads to the club to drop ecstasy with Jean-Paul. Then, eventually, she’ll get on that plane.
Then there’s Donna, who’s convinced herself, through years of what’s likely sheer force of will, that love is supposed to be hard. She’s supposed to love so blindly and openly, then get hurt so badly she’s a sobbing mess on the floor that is ready to pick herself back up, dust herself off, and say, “What’s next?” She’s had her fun, sure (like with notable chatch Christian Slater), but that was all a distraction from her real calling. There’s been a bird tapping at her window this whole time, and it’s finally driving her insane. YET SHE STILL WON’T ADMIT IT. Amy, of all people, has to call it out. And while, look, I’ve been quite the proponent of a Josh/Donna relationship since day one, I wonder if she’s confusing infatuation with love. Like, will even the odd comfort of Josh’s idiosyncrasies be enough?
All a matter of perspective, I suppose. The simplest thing in the world should have been Zoey’s departure from the United States with four highly trained security officers in tow. She’d hang on the arm of French royalty, getting the easy life while protected from a distance. She’d grow tired of this treatment, come back to the States, fall back in love with Charlie, and all would be good. And hell, Jean-Paul is helping her ease into the transition, slipping E into her drink like he’s a creepy person. (Hahahahahaha can you imagine?!?)
Only it’s not. Zoey wanders away on her walk to the bathroom. Or she’s taken by one of the five lost operatives. Or something equally nefarious happened. But an agent is shot through the head, Zoey is missing, and Leo is running. To his best friend, to his boss, to something he never expected, yet would never, for a second, wish it was somebody else doing the running.